The newsletter of the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Women and the Law
Mission Possible: Black Law Students Association at SIU Initiative
A life with no opportunities is like a body with no brain. It has no chance of survival. No chance to grow and learn. No chance to touch the lives of others, and no chance to leave its mark on society.
Many young minority students in the United States today are facing a life without opportunities. Confined to educational facilities with insufficient resources, these students are deprived of basic necessities like books and role models to help them succeed. We have all heard stories of schools like this, but we rarely hear of programs that put forth the little effort it takes to make a big impact.
The Black Law Students Association of Southern Illinois University is taking steps to address this deficiency in some of the most impoverished schools in southern Illinois with a campaign that others can replicate elsewhere. The program is designed to inspire minority students to pursue educational advancement as a means to productive careers—particularly within the legal profession, where there are disproportionately few minorities.
BLSA, which is an organization comprised of a small group of African American and other minority law students, has targeted minority elementary, middle, and high school students, most of whom will come from low income and educationally deprived communities in Illinois and surrounding areas. BLSA’s initiative, called “Mission Possible,” aims to educate young minorities early on about the field of law, what it takes to get there, and how to achieve success, all while preserving one’s true identity.
BLSA students are uniquely situated to give this advice because many have experienced first hand the effects of being a minority in the legal arena. In a school of approximately 380, having 13 African American students, and an even smaller number of minority faculty, present difficulties in the fields of communication, social success, and having the confidence to be sure that you too as a minority can become what you strive to become, and reach every goal you attempt.
Recognizing this need for diversity, BLSA’s first mission became possible at Cairo High School. Located at the southern tip of Illinois, Cairo, often referred to as “the city that died from racism,” is 63% African-American. Only 7.3% of its citizens have received a college degree.1 With the unemployment rate at more than double the amount of the United States, 33.5% of the population is below the poverty level.2 These statistics made Cairo High School the prototype for groups targeted by Mission Possible.
A member of BLSA with personal ties to Cairo informed the organization that one student with above average grades did poorly in science because of a lack of textbooks to take home. With only 50 minutes of class time to comprehend the subject matter, students were at an educational disadvantage. BLSA questioned how these students would be expected to perform on the same level as students who come from wealthy backgrounds and prominent school districts with unlimited access to textbooks and computers. In search of answers, BLSA utilized its personal ties to Cairo, requesting that we be placed on the school board’s agenda, and an opportunity to speak to the teenagers at Cairo High.
After approval, BLSA immediately began preparing for the presentation. With minimal funding and generous contribution from various administrative staff at the School of Law, BLSA created gift bags with various items from the School of Law, and a small program consisting of topics we believed to be most important for young minorities interested in the legal field. Titling the program would add its finishing touch. While brainstorming, a member of BLSA suggested that the program be called Mission Possible. The name was a perfect fit.
With everything in place, five members of BLSA drove 45 minutes south to Cairo. Upon arrival at Cairo High various roadblocks stood in BLSA’s way. The principal was absent from the facility, the vice principal did not expect BLSA’s presence, the list of students could not be located, and no classroom had been reserved. Despite these obstacles, BLSA was determined to give this presentation. Refusing to leave without reaching out to the youngsters, Melodi Green, BLSA’s President stated, “We came all this way, and we’re going to talk to somebody!”
Mission Possible was presented to 11 bright students, comprised of sophomores, juniors, and seniors, who had an interest in law. BLSA members discussed how we became interested in the legal field and what steps we took to get there. With help from materials provided by the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division, we encouraged the students to “Choose Law” as a profession. With a DVD on Minorities choosing law, and various pamphlets made available at the ABA’s Web site, BLSA provided the students with advice tips about the law school admission process including the Law School Admissions Test, the importance of a writing sample, and finding the right law school. The students received invaluable information about different areas of law and the need for diversity in the legal system. The program proved a success.
As one can see, all you need is a lot of heart, a little commitment, and a team that is eager to work together and make a change. This is an example that can be replicated throughout the state and the nation. In fact, BLSA while planning to repeat the Cairo initiative, also plans to conduct a similar program for students at Carbondale High School as well and other future venues. Showing minority students what they are capable of achieving, helping students realize their potential, encouraging them to follow their dreams, and mentoring to students to provide them with guidance, all work together to create a formula for success. This experience will change your lives and, more importantly, the lives of the students you reach. We know this to be true because this experience has changed us.
The Southern Illinois University School of Law Chapter of the Black Law Student Association would like to dedicate this article in memoriam to Kanidryana Moss. Kanidryana was a bright young woman with a vibrant future. She was one of the students whom we talked to at Cairo High School. She displayed a keen interest in law. A week after the Mission Possible program, on the afternoon of February 23, 2007, Kanidryana passed away due to complications with asthma. She will be missed by all who knew her. Her true spirit touched all who knew her. We would like to send our condolences to the Johnson/Moss family and thank you for allowing us to talk with Kanidryana.